Book Review: Beauty in the Beasts


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If you're looking for an emotional joy ride, hitch your wagon to Beauty in the Beasts: True Stories of Animals Who Choose to Do Good, and savor every minute of it.

While Kristin von Kreisler's new nonfiction work (Penguin Putnam Inc. $23.95) lacks empirical evidence required by science disciplines, this deeply affecting collection of public anecdotes promises to make a believer out of you.

Each chapter is built around a behavior - sensitivity, compassion, courage, loyalty, fortitude, cooperation, resourcefulness and generosity. From embattled spirit to gutty simplicity, Beauty in the Beasts will leave you with a twist and a twinge ... and an eventual smile. For von Kreisler, collecting stories has been a "labor of love" since 1989.

"The e-mails and letters have been by far the most rewarding part of my work. I have been amazed by people's response to my book (The Compassion of Animals, her previous volume). And when they share their stories, I am often deeply moved. The sheer number of letters and messages has convinced me that animals' goodness and kindness is everywhere, almost a force on the earth, like gravity.

"It's so much more common than most people realize. And I consider all the hundreds of examples I have collected to be like data in my own huge field of study. The stories add up to undeniable evidence that animals can choose to do good."

Here are several vignettes that will give you a taste of the rich weave of content:

  • Bea, a scruffy, former laboratory experimental beagle that somehow had managed to get free. The dog was rescued on the street by the author and her husband, but it took months until a hands-on trust could be established.

    "She was most terrorized when I took her to our veterinarian Andrew," says the author. "Before he even took a step inside (the exam room) Bea took one look at him and shook so hard that I was scared she'd have a heart attack. When Andrew came closer, she threw herself onto her back, urinated and curled into a pill bug's ball of self-defense, her eyes clamped shut to block him out, her nose pressed hard against her tail."

    One can only imagine what Bea was subjected to in the laboratory. After a couple of years, she followed the author and her husband around "like a little sentinel. She had learned to love."

  • At 2:30 a.m. in Panama City, Fla., a Rottweiler was picked up outside a bar – with a 5-year-old girl, who had awakened in the night and discovered her mother had left her home alone and had gone out drinking with her friends, as usual.

    Probably feeling abandoned, the youngster went outside and headed toward her mother's favorite bar. When the police found the girl, they had no idea where she lived. Plus, she couldn't help them because she was disabled and could not speak.

    Officers determined the child had been wandering around for at least 2½ hours through ditches, marshes and woods. The dog, a former stray that undoubtedly understood how it felt to be cold and hungry, sensed the girl's vulnerability and remained closely alongside her until she was rescued. In his mouth, the sensitive animal carried her blanket.

  • Then there was the case of a mangy, blond mutt that wandered into a Sand Springs, Okla., neighborhood, where residents yelled and threw stones to keep it away. "Her chest was bald, raw, unsightly and she was starving," von Kreisler describes.

    "With bones sticking out beneath her pitiful tufts of fur, she chewed rocks in people's yards to stave off hunger." Eventually, someone reported the loose animal to the sheriff, who decided she was too unfit to be taken to a local shelter, where she might infect others with mange. From a distance, he shot her behind the ear, which is the usual way of disposing of sick, stray animals in some communities. The shot didn't kill her, however, and she staggered away, bleeding profusely.

    Three days later, Renee Manor found the dog sitting by her mailbox. Seeing the blood on its head, she knew it was the same creature that had been shot by the sheriff. Sickened by the abuse, Manor fed the animal, removed ticks and allowed her to remain on the front porch while trying to find a home for her.

    A week later, Manor's goodness paid huge dividends. She took her toddler Lexee outside to play and when the youngster kneeled down to pick a flower, the dog leaped in front of Lexee and knocked the child to the ground and out of the range of a coiled rattlesnake inches away. The snake struck the dog's paw instead of Lexee's face.

  • Gus, a plump black-and-white cat from Ada, Mich., was left in the care of the owner's teenage son when she and her husband were out of town for several days during the winter. Gus was left outside and curled up in the warmth of a tiny space between a culvert and knocked-down wall. While he slept, a blizzard covered his hiding place with snow, and then a snowplow came along, piling on more snow. When the owners (the author prefers to call them guardians) returned nine days later, Gus was obviously missing.

    For days, the couple went out calling for Gus, to no avail. The conditions were windy and neither heard Gus' meowing beneath the surface. Finally, as the weather improved and snow began to melt, the guardian and her son heard a muffled meow beneath the snow near their mailbox. They dug frantically with their hands until they reached the emaciated Gus, that had been trapped for 16 days.

    P.S.: In case you're wondering, von Kreisler and her husband, John Bomben, are "guardians" to two dogs, Noble, a 7-year-old German shepherd and Phoebe, 2, a beagle, plus two cats, 10 year old Linguine and 12 year old William.

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